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Using Cliché in Dien Cai Dau

Komunyakaa (with Vincente Gotera) (1990)


In much of your work, probably more so in Lost in the Bonewheel Factory [where "The Dog Act" and "The Nazi Doll" first appeared] than in Copacetic it seems to me that you strive for a tension between levels of diction. I see you, for example, yoking Latinate words to everyday ones.


That’s probably who I am. Fluctuating between this point over here and another strain over there: the things I’ve read that come into my work, and also the things I’ve experienced that affect my work, at the same time. And both of these work side by side. I don’t draw any distinctions between those two, because after all that’s the totality of the individual.

It goes back to a statement by Aimé Cesaire: essentially, he says that we are a composite of all our experiences – love, hatred, understanding, misunderstaqnding – and consequently we rise out of those things like – to use a cliché – a phoenix. We survive the baptism by fire, only to grow more complete and stronger. The way we are, perhaps today, might be entirely different tomorrow.


It’s interesting that you bring up the word cliché. In your Vietnam poems, I see you doing something different from what you do in Copacetic and Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. You thread in cliches and then deflate them.


That’s interesting because, especially with soldiers, for some reason – individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the deep South, the North, different educational levels – cliches are used many times as efforts to communicate, as bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in cliches – at least this is what I’ve found.

I’ve been using quotations a whole lot, as I remember them. Certain things in a poem will surface, and I can hear a certain person saying those things. And I can see his face, even when I cannot put a name to the face. …

… I’ve been going through faces in writing these Vietnam poems, and I’m surprised at how few of the names I remember. I suppose that’s all part of the forgetting process, in striving to forget particular situations that were pretty traumatic for me. Not when I was there as much as in retrospect. When you’re there in such a situation, you’re thinking about where the nearest safest place is to run, in case of an incoming rocket. You don’t have time to even think about the moral implications. …

from "Lines of Tempered Steel: An Interview with Vincente F. Gotera," Callaloo 13:2 (1990)

Michael Collins (1993)

In "Starlight Scope Myopia," [Komunyakaa’s] unexpected empathy is best expressed by the word Komunyakaa puts into the mouths of the Vietnamese who may be "calling the Americans / beaucoup dien cai dau" (very crazy). This multicultural insult begins with a word the Vietnamese took from the French, whom they defeated, then switches for exactitude into Vietnamese to characterize the Americans, whom they are in the process of defeating. (The ironic phrase spans all the relevant cultures in the long Vietnam nightmare. That an American is wondering whether the Vietcong are using this phrase demonstrates both discomfort and a certain muted triumph at having them in his sights. Even a battlefield is a society with rules and language games.)

It also crystallizes a point Komunyakaa suggests in his interviews with [Vincente] Gotera, that societies of strangers, or even of traditional enemies, can be ever sod elicately held together by infinitely recycled bits of language, by clichés: "[Among American] soldiers, for some reason -- individuals coming from so many backgrounds: the deep South, the North, different educational levels – clichés are used many times as efforts to communicate, as bridges perhaps. And soldiers often speak in clichés …" Clichés, like tatoos on the bodies of languages, are useful decorations of places where a common vision is hidden, or being brought to light. The cliché "Beaucoup dien cai dau"is Komunyakaa’s assessment of the war itself and perhaps of America’s role in it. True, his Vietnam lyrics display none of the sense of outrage, of being pierced by betrayal, so evident in the testimony of some black Vietnam veterans. Gene Woodley … told journalist Wallace Terry of being transformed into an "animal" by his boot camp training, and by the brutality of Vietnam and insisted that in shipping him and other "bloods" off to its rice paddy war, America

befell upon us as one big atrocity. It lied. They had us naïve, young, dumb-ass niggers believin’ that this war was for democracy and independence. It was fought for money. All those big corporations made billions on the war, and then America left.

On the other hand, Komunyakaa is no indestructible patriot like the blood Terry interviewed who narrated the following anecdotes about his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam:

They would read things in their behalf about the Communist way and downgrading the United States, blah, blah, blah, all the time. … When Dr. King was assassinated they called me in for interrogation to see if I would make a statement critical of the United States. I said no, I don’t know enough about it. … My personal feeling is that black people have problems and still have problems in America. But I never told them that, because I had no intention of helping them defeat us. We deal with our problems within our own country. Some people just do not live up to the great ideals our country stands for …

Komunyakaa’s poetry conveys the pain and grace involved in maintaining not so much the middle ground between these two positions as the shifting ground of possibilities that lies under them both. He illuminates these and other positions in part by creating a "tension between levels of diction," as Gotera has said, by deploying what he himself calls a "neon vernacular" in which argots and forms of life blink on and off like those neon signs in which a cityscape expands and contracts, caressing and reshaping the night.

from Michael Collins, "Staying Human" (a review of Neon Vernacular and Magic City), Parnassus 18:2/19:1 (1993), 134-135

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